Having lived in the despotic totalitarian regime of Belarus for a year after college, I’m always curious when other similar or worse regimes are portrayed in the news. With the Winter Olympics in full swing in PyeongChang, South Korea, there has been a tremendous amount of coverage given to North Korea. The theme of these 2018 Olympics has been that of peace. The North and South Korean teams have been competing together as a unified team. And there has been an inordinate amount of media coverage of the North Korean cheer squad and the sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Yo-jong. For some reason, the synchronized cheering of these North Korean women has several media outlets captivated with rapt and uncritical attention.
All of this coverage sent me to check out some more information about the North Korean regime. Having seen the way a cult of personality worked in the former USSR and in Belarus, I wanted to learn more about the leadership of Kim Jong Un. John Sweeney’s book North Korea Undercover is a harsh exposé of life under this dictator. Sweeney describes his many experiences as an undercover economics professor touring North Korea. One of the chapters in Sweeney’s book is an incredibly graphic description of the mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather are displayed in a glass casket. In North Korea these men are revered as gods, their bodies presented as objects of worship.
Sweeney’s description of the embalming process that went into displaying these men is as amazing as it is disturbing. As he details the chemical processes at work in preserving the body, my mind raced back to my visits to the mausoleum of Lenin in Moscow, Russia. Since 1924 in a little marble ziggurat on Red Square, Vladimir Lenin’s body has been displayed in a glass casket. He is a permanent monument of the enduring legacy of Communism in the former Soviet Union. Sweeney notes that the North Korean officials recruited the same Soviet scientists and morticians who had embalmed Lenin. In fact, after Lenin a little cottage industry of embalming and displaying dictators has developed. Mao Zedong in China, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are some of the despotic dictators who sought to continue to rule over their people long after their death.
These dead men are chemically made to appear to be resting and at peace. In their death they attempt to maintain an iron grip on the lives of their people. In reality these men are physically nothing near a real human body and spiritually, apart from an unknown and remarkable deathbed conversion to Christ, certainly not experiencing eternal rest and peace. And yet these totalitarian regimes must balance the stability of their nations on the appearance of their dead leaders’ vitality beyond the grave.
The silly naiveté of western media’s infatuation with the antics of a despotic North Korea during the Olympics and the lengths to which North Korea goes to prop up the cult of personality around Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un reeks of fake news. Sweeney’s book gives anecdote after anecdote of North Koreans who have only lived their lives under the influence of this kind of fake news. They have honestly never known the truth.
We would also have to be naïve to believe that we are never the victims of fake news. Much of the media we consume is carefully and subconsciously curated to reinforce our preconceived biases. Fake news is not relegated to the northern half of the Korean peninsula. We live in a world of fake news. But there is Good News. There is Good News that upsets and overturns the hopelessness of the fake news in our world. There is a radically disturbing and life-changing Good News in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of a kingdom built upon the chemically preserved remains of a despotic leader, Jesus Christ offers a kingdom built upon the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lamb of God. Instead of creating armies of Stepford Wives to robotically and mindlessly cheer on a regime, Jesus Christ offered to bring a fullness of life (John 10:10). Instead of a kingdom ruled by a man who would crush his people in order to maintain his grip on authority, Jesus Christ emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7), and was crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5) in order to set us free (John 8:36). When the media offers us a hope built upon falsehood, we need to continue to turn to the sure hope of the Good News.
 John Sweeney, North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State, 2016.